THE SPECTER of working alone in an all-night convenienc store may send chills up the spine of some people, especially those who hesitate even to use the 24-hour markets late at night. But those who work in the stores after dark, often alone, don't necessarily live in fear.
Even in the wake of a murder last week at a 7-Eleven on 33rd Street in Waverly, most night-shifters accept the possibility of crime as something you just have to live with.
"I try not to think of it as putting myself in danger," says Patricia Weber, manager of the Wawa Food Market at St. Paul and 33rd streets. That store is just a couple of blocks from the 7-Eleven where night manager Hae Gak Chung was killed during an attempted holdup at 3 o'clock in the morning last Tuesday. No arrests have been made in that case.
"You can get robbed anywhere any time," says Weber. "It can happen when you're walking down the street. You can get murdered in your own home."
Maybe so, but the odds seem stacked against convenience stores.
There were 23 robberies of convenience stores in Baltimore in the first three months of this year, according to police reports. That's about one robbery every four days.
Still, of more than a dozen store clerks interviewed in city and suburban locations since the murder, none feared for his or her safety enough to consider changing jobs.
Their reasons for pulling the late shift are varied. Some like working alone. Others are moonlighting for extra money while holding down a day job. Many are women supplementing the family income.
Weber, who has been with Wawa nine years, working various shifts and stores, says that trouble is something you just can't predict. "We've been hit on every shift," she says. She once was robbed at 8 o'clock in the morning.
Diane Byrd is Weber's assistant manager who was on duty the night of the murder in nearby Waverly. She said police, who frequently visit her store overnight, informed her of the shooting shortly after it occurred.
"I was upset about it. You can't help but be. But there's not much you can do about it. You just have to be a little more cautious. I was in the store once when we were robbed at 4:30 in the afternoon."
Indeed, what makes stores so convenient to customers is alswhat makes them so vulnerable. Most are very close to the road and easy to get in and out of -- a plus for both customers and thieves. Because they are continually busy, there's always some ready cash in the register.
Corporate managers of convenience outlets, realizing the vulnerability of their employees, have instituted safeguards over the years. At 7-Eleven, a program started in 1976 has reportedly won praise from police departments and has been copied by other convenience chains.
Karla Leavelle, a human resources manager for the company, says employees are trained to "cooperate 100 percent" and be "non-confrontational" when trouble does occur. "We tell them don't try to subdue anyone. Get them in and out as soon as possible."
Most firms have learned to keep stores well-lighted with uncluttered windows so that what's going on inside can be seen from outside. Clerks often wear recognizable smocks, and the cash registers are located at the front of the store so they can be seen easily from outside.
In addition, most chains operate on a system where employees keep a limited amount of cash in the drawer at night, continually transferring money to a "drop safe" from which it cannot be removed.
At Wawa, company policy requires at least two people to work each shift, around the clock, says district manager Bob Pierno. "That's strictly for security reasons," he says, noting that it isn't necessarily a profitable policy.
While all these security measures seem to reassure employees, crime continues; overall, robberies in Baltimore were up nearly 15 percent in the first quarter of this year.
In Baltimore County, there were 119 convenience store robberies in 1990, says police Sgt. Steve Doarnberger, and 70 of them -- almost 60 percent -- occurred between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Only one, the well-publicized incident at the Big Red Mini Mart on Pulaski Highway in September, resulted in homicide -- the deaths of two Middle River teen-agers. John Frederick Thanos is scheduled to go on trial in those killings June 24.
"Usually, they just want money. They don't come in to kill you," says Linda Proctor, manager of the 7-Eleven at 25th Street and Kirk Avenue, which was held up by three men less than a half-hour after Chung was killed last week. Police say the trio did not fit the description of the men sought in the murder.
Proctor says being prepared for robbery has become second nature.
"The first time I was held up it was scary, but I never considere quitting," says the 21-year-old who has worked for the convenience store chain three years.
Proctor, who says most of her employees are women, points out that gender doesn't deter criminals. A male employee was on duty when the store was robbed last week, she notes. "He quit that night.